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Innocent — or murderers?

Updated: December 15, 2011 9:51AM

‘What the hell is going on in Chicago?” queried an outraged Peter J. Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project. He called from New York, incredulous that Cook County prosecutors are fighting him on a 1994 murder case that convicted five teenagers for the vicious murder of a Nina Glover in Englewood.

Neufeld’s client, Michael Saunders, was one of the teens. Now 32, Saunders has served 17 years in prison and remains at Dixon Correctional Center.

Saunders is innocent, Neufeld claims, and has the DNA evidence to prove it. Neufeld and his colleagues have petitioned the court to vacate the convictions.

He excoriated Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez: “They would rather defend the conviction. They are willing to go to the mat.”

What the hell is going on? Wrongful convictions for violent crimes have cost Illinois taxpayers $214 million and imprisoned innocent people for a collective 926 years, shows a recent investigation by the Better Government Association and the Center on Wrongful Convictions. Between 1989 and 2010, 85 people were wrongfully incarcerated for murders, sexual assaults and other crimes. (Full disclosure: I serve on the BGA’s advisory committee).

After Neufeld’s call, I plowed through the court filings. It was hundreds of pages of mayhem.

In November 1994, Nina Glover, 30, was found beaten and strangled to death behind a house in Englewood on Chicago’s South Side. Chicago Police later got a tip and interrogated five teens, who confessed to brutally raping and killing Glover, an alleged prostitute.

Three of the suspects — Terrill Swift, Harold Richardson and Saunders — were convicted and sentenced to between 30 and 40 years in prison. Another pled guilty and received 30 years.

Last May, the Innocence Project matched semen found on Glover’s body to another man, now deceased. He had a long history of violent crime.

Alvarez has strenuously reviewed the evidence and concluded that despite the DNA results, there is not enough evidence to establish innocence, said spokesperson Sally Daly.

Because the case is ongoing ligation, Daly declined to get into the details. However, “the identity of the donor of the DNA evidence has to be weighed with other evidence, which may establish the guilt of another or others,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Is this case an abject miscarriage of justice, or just a bunch of murderous scumbags looking for get-out-of-jail-free cards?

I don’t know. As often with such cases, we may never know the “truth.” Both sides offer complex and compelling arguments.

I do know that in Chicago, black men and boys are incarcerated at heinously high rates. Women and girls are raped and killed. Gang bangers rule with terror. Neighborhoods like Englewood are ground zero for violent pathologies.

On Wednesday, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Judge Paul Biebel Jr. is expected to rule on the defendants’ request to have their convictions vacated.

Whatever Biebel decides, what goes on in Chicago is the greatest tragedy.

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